The rings of Saturn are dramatically tipped toward Earth for impressive viewing.
January night sky
Happy New Year! I trust everyone enjoyed the late December sky. On Christmas night, the sky provided us with a spectacular sight, Venus and just a sliver of Moon hanging in the evening twilight side by side. That was a great Christmas present for sky watchers.
This January, you'll want to note Venus's brilliance. Besides the Moon, Venus is the dominant celestial object in the evening. On New Year’s Day, it will set as late as two and a half hours after the Sun. During the winter and spring months, Venus will rise higher in the sky and set later at night, reaching its highest point on March 29.
Venus, in fact, will be so bright now that it can be seen with the naked eye in a haze-free afternoon sky. That's right, during the day! Though not an easy task, it is well worth the effort. After twilight ends, from a really dark site, it will be seen casting faint yet distinct shadows.
Much like Earth's Moon, Venus goes through phases. Between now and May of 2004, repeated observation of Venus with a small telescope will show a wide range of its phases and disk sizes. By the end of March, Venus reaches what's called dichotomy, displaying a half-moon shape.
Then, for the rest of the spring it will be a large crescent as it swings nearer to the Earth. Those using telescopes will note that while the Earth-Venus distance is lessening, the apparent size of Venus’s disk will grow, doubling from its present size by March 17. On May 8, its large crescent shape should be easily discernable with steadily held seven-power binoculars.
In 2003 we had the Summer of Mars; now we have the Winter of Saturn. On New Year’s Eve, the “Lord of the Rings” will be closer to Earth and brighter than at any time in three decades. All month long sky watchers can enjoy Saturn at its finest. A similar opportunity won't come again for another thirty years. Saturn takes 29.42 years to orbit the Sun. Its path is not quite circular, and it was just on July 26 that Saturn reached its closest point to the Sun on that orbit, called perihelion. The near coincidence of perihelion and opposition dictate that on New Year’s Eve Saturn will be closer to Earth (748.3 million miles) than at any time since December 1973.
There's a bonus. Saturn's rings are not always well tilted for viewing. Sometimes they are edge on, as seen from Earth, and unimpressive. Right now, the rings are still dramatically tipped—more than twenty-five degrees to our line of sight. This allows the planet to be seen in all its glory, and it also accentuates Saturn’s brightness. Any telescope magnifying more than 30x will show them. Even inexpensive department-store telescopes should do the job.
There are other astronomical delights scheduled for 2004. Jupiter will reach opposition, its closest and brightest point in its orbit to Earth, the first week of March. From mid-March through April, all five naked-eye planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) will be visible at once in the night sky. This will be a treat for those who received Christmas telescopes.
There will be a rare alignment on June 8, when Venus will partially eclipse the Sun for the first time since 1882 (Never look directly at the Sun with the naked eye). The next transit is scheduled for 2012.
A total lunar eclipse is on tap for us on October 27. And finally, don’t forget two of the better meteor showers, the Perseids on August 11, and the Geminids on December 13.
Where are the Planets and the Moon?
- You will find Venus, Mars, and Saturn in the evening and night sky.
- Mercury and Jupiter are visible in the morning sky.
- On January 15, you may be able to spot Uranus. Use binoculars to look one degree (width of your index finger) to the right of Venus about an hour after sunset. Uranus will be the dim bluish “star.”
- The Moon is full on January 7 and new on January 21.
Astrophotography exhibition open
The LodeStar Astronomy Center and the Albuquerque Astronomical Society have announced the opening of the second annual "Astro-Images of New Mexico: Portraits from the Foothills of Space" astrophotography contest exhibition. The exhibition features twenty-six celestial images taken throughout the state of New Mexico, from Carlsbad to Chaco Canyon, by amateur photographers. The images will be on display through February 2004 at the LodeStar Astronomy Center in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Old Town, Albuquerque. The exhibit is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and admission is included in the price of a LodeStar ticket. For further details, visit www.lodestar.unm.edu or call 505-841-5955.
Starry Nights returns to Lodestar
Starry Nights, the deluxe tour of the night sky, is currently playing at the LodeStar Astronomy Center for its fourth season. Starry Nights includes a special new planetarium show in a newly refurbished planetarium theater, access to an interactive gallery of exhibits, fun hands-on activities for kids, and observing through a variety of telescopes, both under the observatory dome and on the open-air observing deck overlooking Tiguex Park.
Starry Nights is offered every Saturday evening through February 28, with shows starting at 6:30, 7:00, 7:30, 8:00, and 8:30 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $3 for children ages three to twelve.
LodeStar's renovated planetarium theater is now equipped with the "next generation" of dome projection technology, Digital Sky, which is a real-time digital star field and graphics system. This quarter-million-dollar upgrade was made possible through a major gift by Sky-Skan, a world leader in full-dome planetarium systems.
The upgrade to Digital Sky provides planetarium visitors with a superior experience in a number of ways. The new starfield contains ten times more stars than before. The display is significantly brighter and sharper, making it easier for audience members of all ages to see the stars and other celestial objects being shown on the dome. In addition, with the increased resolution, star color is visible. The powerful new projection system seamlessly blends the starfield with shooting stars, star trails, 3-D images, stills, and movies.
The LodeStar Astronomy Center is a University of New Mexico project located in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science at 1801 Mountain Road in Old Town, Albuquerque. For more information, call 505-841-5955 or visit www.lodestar.unm.edu.